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Walter Rodgers

Survivors know best: Torture is always wrong

It’s immoral and it doesn’t make anyone more secure. Just ask those who’ve been tortured.

By Walter Rodgers / February 3, 2010



Washington

They live invisibly among us, 41,000 in the Washington area, half a million in the United States. They are survivors of horrific political torture. Unless they open their shirts, you detect few visible scars. “The mark of torture is more inside than out,” says “Elena,” a woman from Gabon who uses a wheelchair.

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(Because everyone interviewed has living relatives in their native lands, all names have been changed at their request.)

Americans with no experience deceive themselves about torture. A friend told me that when the US tortured people it was somehow more humane.

But talk to torture victims at the annual gathering of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) and they tell you that torture, whatever its guise, is always immoral.

In the early 1980s, Miguel was held prisoner for four years by the Marcos regime in the Philippines. “Torture is always wrong,” he says. “It uses terrorism to try to destroy terrorism. The torturer becomes the terrorist. You think you establish order by breaking the law.”

Torture breaks people as well as the law. Yvette from Cameroon speaks slowly, vacantly, and without focus. One of the TASSC directors acknowledged that “her mind has yet to heal.”

Yvette was tortured for belonging to a human rights defense group in Cameroon. Police were seeking information on political dissidents. “I was beaten continuously,” she says. “They slapped my face and head for three days. I don’t know how long I was unconscious.” When Yvette regained consciousness, she was unable to walk for a week, her legs having been beaten with police batons.

“I think the pain will never stop,” she says. “I still shake when I hear police sirens.”

“Even in Washington, D.C.?” I ask.

“Yes. I feel like they’re after me again.”

Perpetrators of torture share a common rationale: national security. “They tell you torture keeps your families safe and secure,” says Miguel.

What about the Israeli argument – that torture can thwart a suicide bomber, or the American version: “What if Islamic terrorists planted a suitcase-sized nuclear bomb in New York City?”

I put that question to torture survivors. One asked, “Why torture anyone? Wouldn’t you be better off finding an imam ... to sit with the prisoner and let him persuade a suspect it’s morally wrong to take innocent lives?”

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